The History of Prefab Homes


The lowly prefabricated house has experienced a renaissance in the past few years, with modern manufacturers designing prefab homes that have all the conveniences of factory-built housing with cutting-edge style. Prefab homes have always been on the cutting edge of architecture. Designers as diverse as Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius have contributed to the fascinating history of prefabricated housing.

Pe-1900 Prefab Housing

  • Before the Industrial Revolution, prefabricated housing was unheard of and nearly impossible. However, as machinery became more and more sophisticated, so did the items that assembly lines were able to produce, and homes became one of those items.

    The first major development in the history of the prefabricated house was the Manning Portable Cottage, designed in England to assist with housing in the colony of Australia.

    By 1837, the Manning Portable Cottage had become a successful venture into prefabricated housing, with several models available for shipment to England's colonial interests throughout the world.

The Catalog Home: Sears & Roebuck - 1908-1940

  • At the turn of the 20th century, if there was a constant in every American home, it was the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Everything from stockings to cars were available through, and eventually the home itself was available.

    From 1908 to 1940, each year's edition of the Sears & Roebuck catalog featured prefabricated houses for sale in an astounding variety of styles and sizes. Everything from a vacation cottage to a multi-family residence could be ordered, delivered and set up, all without leaving home. From the simplest family residence to a veritable mansion, nearly any type of home imaginable could be ordered through Sears & Roebuck.

Fabulous Prefab: Wright and Gropius, 1911-1931

  • Frank Lloyd Wright was the first major architect to try his hand at prefab housing. Beginning in 1911, Wright began designing homes that could be constructed in pieces in a factory and assembled at the house site, making the homes more affordable by reducing labor costs. These houses bore the unmistakable stamp of Wright's vision, setting them apart from the assembly-line homes of Sears & Roebuck.

    Another architect, Walter Gropius, had a similar idea. In Weimar, Germany, Gropius worked on several different prefabricated housing that would solve post-war Germany's housing shortage problems. Modern, almost Art-Deco in design, Gropius' prefabricated homes influenced not only prefab houses but architecture in total for years to come.

Prefab Spreads Out: 1930-1945

  • During Depression-era, Americans were more than ever concerned with affordable housing. Prefabricated home design gained interest throughout the country, both through mail-order catalogs and other outlets.

    Designs of prefab houses also began to expand. New materials were used, such as glass in the Keck Crystal house, and steel and iron in the Stran-Steel Houses.

    The metal prefab became most recognizable in the Quonset hut, which, developed during World War II for quick housing needs, did more to damage the reputation of the prefab house than to further it.

The Decline of the Prefab House: 1945-2000

  • Although such distinguished architects as Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Marcel Breuer worked on prefabricated houses during the 1930s and 1940s, by the end of World War II, the era of prefab houses seemed to be over. The newly affluent middle class in America lost interest, for the most part, in these inexpensive dwellings.

    One notable exception was the Lustron house. Similar to the Stran-Steel homes of the 1930s, the Lustron house was constructed of metal panels. Available in several different configurations, Lustron constructed around 3,000 homes between 1947 and 1950, when the company ceased production.

    Although construction took many cues from prefabricated homes after 1950, including the use of modular construction, after 1950, prefabricated homes became synonymous with mobile homes.

Prefab Homes Today

  • Today, many architects and designers have revitalized the prefabricated home, designing products that incorporate the best features of prefabrication and the individuality of traditionally built homes. Available in a variety of building materials, styles and price points, modern prefabricated homes build on the rich history of their predecessors.

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